Far in the future, Hanck Orn, repairer and seller of machines – "obsoletes" like typewriters and telescopes – lives with, and for, his son, Toby, in a big city where Swedish is spoken. The centuries have shorn the language of its umlauts. When Hanck realises that his surname should really be Örn (Eagle), he can appreciate more clearly his own existential position. Here he is in a place where the contaminated air is death-dealing, violence makes it dangerous to be out, and living is regulated by the mysterious Clan. Is that not like being a bird-of-prey with clipped wings? Hanck knows the eagle's fabled history as the only creature who dared defy Loki, most sinister of the Norse gods, who have re-emerged and make up the Clan.
One afternoon two Clan apparatchiks come to Hanck's apartment to tell him his beloved Toby is dead. Hanck knows that foul play is responsible for the sudden death of this sweet-natured youth of 20. Toby has been cooking for a great party held by the Clan in the archipelago (obviously the beautiful Stockholm Skerries). So Hanck makes a journey to investigate, and finds the truth involves Loki, the eagle's old antagonist.
With a narrative power that increases as it proceeds, this novel (translated by Tiina Nunnally) links two fictive worlds quite foreign to British readers. I suspect the urban dystopia Klas Östergren vividly depicts has resonated with Swedes because it derives from their country's horrified reception of the 1986 Chernobyl fall-out. And the gods of Asgard, with cruelly ambivalent Loki, have long haunted the Nordic mind. But what is pitted against these terrible domains, the love of a father for a son, is culture-transcending. Odin, head of the Clan, tells the grieving Hanck: "You've experienced twenty years of love. That's more than most people get. Write about that, about looking after a child, raising a son... Write a saga for him." So this dark tale, for all its alien milieux, is a paean to the humanity of art itself.